Ngo Dinh Diem declares that pursuant to the wishes of the South Vietnamese people, as evidenced in a national referendum a few days before, the Republic of Vietnam is now in existence and that he will serve as the nation’s first president. The event marked a crucial step in the deepening U.S. involvement in Vietnam, and gave evidence of some troubling aspects that would characterize Diem’s eight years in power.
Peace agreements in 1954, between the French and Vietnamese nationalists battling for independence, left Vietnam a divided country. In the north, Ho Chi Minh and his communist supporters were in control. In the south the French installed a weak “nationalist” government led by Bao Dai. National elections were to be held in two years to reunify the nation and select a leader. The United States was not a party to this agreement and quickly determined to save southern Vietnam from Ho’s control. Diem was viewed by U.S. officials as the best hope for a leader for an independent, democratic South Vietnam. In 1954 Bao Dai named Diem as premier. By 1955, Diem decided to jettison Bao Dai and take control. He called a national referendum, which was supported by the United States. The resulting balloting was an embarrassment to all concerned (except Diem). Diem received 98.2 percent of the vote. (Just a short time earlier, President Eisenhower had criticized elections in Iron Curtain countries, claiming that no one receives over 90 percent of the vote in a truly free election.) Charges of corruption were immediately raised, and it was soon discovered that the 400,000 voters in Saigon cast over 600,000 ballots. Nevertheless, Diem succeeded. Bao Dai was out, and Diem’s rule was complete. The United States, despite some qualms about exactly how “democratic” Diem’s government would be, recognized the new president. The nation of South Vietnam was now a reality, and the United States had committed itself to its new government and leader.